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Too Much Of A Good Thing: The Shanghai World Expo

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As goes the World Expo, so goes Shanghai. As goes Shanghai, so goes the security blanket of China. That was the conventional wisdom espoused way back in early 2010, when most feared that the Expo was yet another inflated symbol of China, the world's greatest issuer of puffery. Surely, cried the rabble (which included, ahem, yours truly), there would be more overinvested, underdeveloped swaths of property stripped to ashes and rubble. More top-heavy business models bottoming out. More chaos, more human stampedes. Only this time, oh yes, this time -- unlike the Olympics, unlike the riots in Xinjiang, unlike the Tibet impasse -- it would halt, if not China's reign as an artificial superpower altogether, then at least all those silly Time Magazine cover stories.

As a general rule of thumb, we reward stability over the get-rich-or-die-trying mentality that pervades the web 3.0 generation. We believe that nothing that is fast and loose and recklessly scaled can be sustained. See: Woods, Tiger. See: Enron. Don't buy the hype because eventually, it buries you in a sea of cheap tailored suits that burst at the slightest hint of wear and tear. In the spirit of abusing metaphors, you know what else bursts? Bubbles. Namely, the China Bubble.

So while the Chinese media say more, more, more, the Western media likes to say that unchecked growth matters less, less, less. Of course, the raw numbers tilt both ways -- record-shattering numbers of attendance by people within China belies the simple, indisputable fact that foreign visitors simply don't care about the Expo, whether it's being held in Kyoto, Brussels, Milan, or Shanghai. The usual complaints are all in play. Gargantuan, disorderly lines that make amusement parks seem tame by comparison. Pavilions with ramshackle presentations (North Korea: no surprise there); corporate-speak masquerading as cross-cultural diplomacy (step right up, USA); architectural behemoths that look good until you see what's inside them (the still-impressive UK pavilion). The green technologies that were supposed to usher in a "better city, better life" tended to be noisily obscured by schlocky 3D productions and cheap shock tactics like a Sichuan earthquake simulator. Whatever happened to pushing the envelope on interactivity? And, well, just plain fun?

The question is: fun for whom? The Western media loves to insist that, in China, the voices of the people matter now more than ever. Their wants, their needs, their cries for transparency are becoming harder to suppress and manipulate. But what about their instincts to be pandered to, for a change, by the rest of the world? To see the rest of the world as they see themselves often depicted in the international press -- exotified, simplified, ignorantly categorized? Visiting each pavilion is like seeing a country's tics and trademarks written in shorthand. Spain = sensual dancing. France = stuffy museum art. Denmark = the Little Mermaid statue. Chile = delicious Pisco sours. If the Olympics were purely about spectacle, then the Expo is purely an act of navel-gazing -- look at us look at you. It's not the exhibitions that are on display -- it's nationalistic hubris. How could the results be anything but kitschy?

Obviously, I'm not trying to argue that having more outlets to express pride (or disgust) in, say, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is a comparable achievement to seeing other countries fly their freak flags. But what I am saying is that perhaps the shoe is on the other foot. America experienced its Roaring Twenties and its economic boom in the '90s during times when the going was good, and when they were decisively ahead of the pack. Now that the going has gotten tougher and the rest of the world has caught up, it's much easier to qualify the success of others than to concede them.

As a citywide beautification project, the Expo gives Shanghai what it so desperately craves -- a pedigree to match the perception that it's THE city of the future. For now, changes have been as much cultural as they have been cosmetic. Subway lines have multiplied and criss-crossed, connecting parts of the city that were previously left in development purgatory. Upscale Xinjiang restaurants attract middle-class Chinese diners and expats alike. Non-smoking sections are observed without much resistance. How much of this will last is anyone's guess, but in the case of Shanghai, it's not so much a question of "when?" as it is "what's next?"

For those of us living in a world where all bubbles are begging to be burst, the Shanghai World Expo was doomed to drown in its own excesses. But if excess bleeds into success, who are we to tell the difference?